Very early in Jeff VanderMeer’s unusual eco-thriller Hummingbird Salamander, the narrator/protagonist, a large and muscular female former wrestler and body-builder, explains the goal of her narration in the starkest of terms. Having declined to give us her real name, she suggests that we just call her “Jane Smith,” which is ominous enough. Then she announces, “I’m here to show you how the world ends” (6). That should certainly get our attention. Narratives of how the world “ends” have, of course, become a very popular genre in recent years, often showing us how heroic, ultra-competent protagonists are able to survive the collapse of civilization, perhaps setting things on a path to rebirth and rebuilding. Not so in Hummingbird Salamander. Jane is heroic enough and competent enough, after her fashion, but she is overmatched by the environmental collapse that lies at the center of this novel. She is so overmatched, in fact, that she makes no pretense to having answers. Instead, she spends most of the narrative on the trail of the mysterious and illusive Silvina Vilcapampa, daughter of an ultra-rich South American family (who stand as emblems of international capitalism), hoping that Silvina might have some answers, though Jane has no idea what those answers might be.
Hummingbird Salamander is set in the very near future, and its vision of a collapsing American society contains no elements that are not already with us. But today’s struggles with pandemics, conspiracy theories, and right-wing extremists have only gotten worse in the novel, all within the context of a natural environment the general collapse of which is spiraling out of control. It’s a rip-roaring page-turner, with lots of action (and violence), an unusual (but likeable) protagonist, and a panoply of motifs derived from popular genres such as hard-boiled detective fiction, spy fiction, and science fiction.
Hummingbird Salamander plays with these genres in quintessentially postmodern ways, while continuing to supply some of the narrative pleasures typically associated with those genres. Meanwhile, the novel’s playfulness does not prevent it from engaging in some very serious ways with the monumental issue of climate change. In a glowing New York Times review, Helen Phillips describes Hummingbird Salamander as “climate fiction at its most urgent and gripping.” Further, she captures much of the texture of the novel when she notes that “simmering in the background is the low ominous hum of climate change, habitat destruction, international unrest, an encroaching pandemic, a litany of disasters glimpsed on TV and overheard on the radio. Jane’s world is, at first, recognizable; there are still school talent shows and overindulgent Christmases and hotel conferences. But the seething background gradually advances, terrifyingly, into the foreground.”
An Unusual (Postmodern) Detective Story
Hummingbird Salamander is a remarkably deft exercise in genre storytelling. Jane begins her narration, even before announcing that it will be an end-of-the-world story, on a note that is already portentous: “Assume I’m dead by the time you read this. Assume you’re being told all of this by a flicker, a wisp, a thing you can’t quite get out of your head now that you’ve found me. And in the beginning, it’s you, not me, being handed an envelope with a key inside … on a street, in a city, on a winter day so cold that breathing hurts and your lungs creak” (3). This opening helps to set up a film noir tone for the narrative, reminding us of films such as Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), which is narrated throughout by a character who is already dead at the time of the narration. As in Sunset Boulevard, Jane’s announcement that she is probably already dead as we read her story immediately establishes a dark and ominous tone, suggesting that she might be doomed, regardless of what occurs in the upcoming pages. At the same time, the idea of a posthumous narrator is inherently strange, also helping to establish a tone that departs from the ordinary.
As the novel begins, Jane works for a security firm, so she is already detective adjacent (and once thought of becoming a police detective), and she shifts rather easily into the role of detective as she begins to unravel the clues left for her by Silvina. Yet those clues are so unusual (the first is simply a taxidermied hummingbird left for her in a rundown storage facility) and Jane’s mastery of the cadences of hard-boiled detective fiction are so spot-on that one immediately suspects that what we are reading is a parody of a detective narrative. Then, as the narrative continues and spreads into the realms of spy fiction and science fiction, it sometimes seems even more outrageous. And yet the entire narrative is so compelling that we are pulled along, slowly realizing that none of the events of the narrative are any more preposterous than the things we are seeing on our television screens every night in our own world. Hummingbird Salamander is an extreme narrative not because it wants to exaggerate, and thus spoof, the genres on which it draws. It is extreme because it inhabits an extreme (and extremely endangered) world, as do we all.
There are elements of extreme noir detective/crime fiction and of science fiction in the novel that decidedly go beyond the everyday to which we are accustomed. Of these genres, the detective genre is dominant in shaping the narrative, and the choice is an important one. In the classic detective narrative of authors from Arthur Conan Doyle to Agatha Christie, some sort of crime (usually a murder) disrupts the status quo, and detectives such as Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot typically solve the crime, thereby restoring that status quo and assuring that justice is done. Moreover, the crime is solved through the relentless application of logic, providing assurance that the world is a rational, well-ordered place where the behavior of individuals ultimately makes sense. The hardboiled detective fiction of writers such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler then challenges this conservative, complacent, bourgeois view of society to a certain extent, taking us into worlds of moral ambiguity in which the social status quo itself might be part of the problem. In these cases, detectives such as Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe might sometimes rely on violence as much as reasoning in solving crimes, and they themselves might have their doubts about whether the social status quo deserves to be restored. They do, however, have their own personal codes, so that their stories nevertheless still have a moral center, even if an eccentric one.
Little wonder, then, that postmodern authors who have sought to challenge comfortable assumptions about the rationality of the world have often used the detective story form in subversive ways. Perhaps the classic example of this phenomenon is Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1965), in which his version of a female detective, Oedipa Maas (named for the Oedipus of Sophocles, often thought of as the first detective in Western literature), fumbles her way through an increasingly bewildering proliferation of clues until the narrative simply ends, just as a key clue seems about to be revealed. Other postmodern detective novels include such varied examples as Thomas Berger’s Who Is Teddy Villanova? (1977), Richard Brautigan’s Dreaming of Babylon (1977), Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980), Mario Vargas Llosa’s Who Killed Palomino Molero? (1986), Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn (1999), and (perhaps the purest example of all) Pynchon’s own Chandler take-off Inherent Vice (2009).
Hummingbird Salamander plays with the tropes of the detective genre in a number of ways. For example, the taxidermied hummingbird, so central to the plot, is an offbeat focus for Jane’s investigations, clearly recalling the Maltese Falcon of the 1941 Humphrey Bogart film of that title, often considered to be the first genuine noir film—though the hummingbird turns out to be more thematically meaningful than the Maltese Falcon, given that the hummingbird, in the world of the novel, is an extinct species and thus links up with the narrative’s focus on the destructive effects of climate change, exacerbated by human greed. And the creepiness factor of taxidermy in general is key here, standing as another example of the arrogance with which humans have felt authorized to use the natural world and its creatures for their own amusement.
Ultimately, Jane does find Silvina and discover the nature of Silvina’s secret project. However, the novel also leaves open the possibility that this discovery will be absolutely meaningless and will do nothing to convince humans to take climate change seriously. The inconclusive ending of VanderMeer’s novel, though, does leave significant room for hope, even if that hope relies primarily on a posthuman future in which a transformed Jane will be the initial member of a new, more environmentally responsible human race. In order for this to happen, Jane will have to be fundamentally changed by Silvina’s formula. Indeed, VanderMeer’s subversion of the detective genre suggests that, in order to overcome the colossal problems that face us, we will need new kinds of heroes and new kinds of stories. As Noah Berlatsky puts it in another early review, “Our superspy detective hero finds the truth, and that truth is that superspy detective heroes are mostly useless. … The novel isn’t just about how we’re too involved in the quotidian to notice a crisis, though. It’s also about how our empowerment fantasies are particularly ill-suited to deal with that crisis. … When all you have are the old stories, how can you speak a new ending?”
Probably the most science fictional element of Hummingbird Salamander involves the mysterious formula that Jane discovers beside the body of Silvina near the end of the book. Three doses of this formula have been prepared; the first two have apparently already killed Silvina and one of her key followers. Jane, reading Silvina’s notes on the formula and acknowledging that they are beyond her layperson’s ability fully to understand, concludes that the formula is designed to modify human DNA (taking lessons from remarkable animals such as hummingbirds and salamanders) in order to make humans more compatible with the world around them: “Radical changes. Not to become superhuman or erase difference or erase anything. References to the salamander’s unique defensive toxin, and the alkaloids in the flowers preferred by the hummingbird, which could be hallucinogenic to humans. Some evidence of a quest to harness their power without the toxicity. Chemical biomimicry” (345)
With her husband and her family already lost to her and with the social world collapsing around her, Jane decides to administer the third dose to herself, reasoning that she might survive it due to her superior physical strength. As the novel ends, she has just injected herself, leaving us to wonder what the effect might be and whether Jane might become a key to building a new human race and a new world—or whether she might simply die, like Silvina. Jane doesn’t really understand the science behind this formula, and neither do we, because Hummingbird Salamander isn’t that sort of novel. The formula developed by Silvina obviously isn’t proposed as a literal solution to the problems that ail us. After all, we know (especially after our recent experience with Covid-19 vaccines) that large segments of the U.S. population would refuse should a treatment, even if could be perfected and proven safe. The function of this motif in the text, instead, is allegorical, and its lesson is hard to dispute. If we are to survive as a species, rather than simply to follow in the footsteps of all those other species we have driven to extinction (including the hummingbird and the salamander of the title), human beings are going to have to change in radical and fundamental ways. Hummingbird Salamander, on the other hand, does not seem particularly confident that such changes are likely to take place.
An Unusual Narrator/Protagonist
Perhaps what most departs from the ordinary in Hummingbird Salamander is Jane herself, who is a decidedly unusual narrator and protagonist. For one thing, we never even learn her real name, which she decides to keep from us, making us wonder what else she might be hiding. And, of course, few narratives feature a woman who is so large and powerful, easily able to hold her own in physical combat with most men. Her expertise in surveillance and security technologies is also something that is typically coded as masculine, even though it is probably less unusual for a woman than Jane’s physical power or facility with firearms. In short, Jane displays many of the traits that one would typically associate with a crime thriller protagonist, except that protagonists with such traits are typically male. Perhaps more striking, though, is the fact that she violates so many of the other norms that our society typically associates with the feminine—yet remains a sympathetic and likeable figure, largely through the ability of first-person narrators to align us with their points of view, eliciting our identification with them.
Patricia Stuelke discusses the ways in which Hummingbird Salamander confounds conventional gender expectations, especially in relation to its depiction of the “security state.” Noting how the contemporary security state is often gendered as feminine, depicted as a sort of “Aunty” or “security mom” that is supposedly looking out for us in a nurturing (but potentially smothering) way, Stuelke indicates the anti-feminist implications of such a depiction. On the other hand, she argues that Hummingbird Salamander, “in contrast, undoes and remakes the privatized figure of the ‘security mom.’ Suspicious of democratic visions of the social … the novel experiments with unraveling its protagonist’s social ties and investments in security (as a profit-making enterprise, as a ‘generic’ state of being) in pursuit of a queer antisocial vision that might confront environmental and institutional collapse” (54).
It is certainly the case that, even though Jane seems to begin the narrative as a relatively “normal” suburban working mom, there is clearly a way in which, as Stuelke puts it, “her identity as a suburban mom is a self-conscious performance of generic womanhood” (62). Indeed, as the narrative proceeds and we learn more and more about Jane and her background, we begin to appreciate more and more just how unconventional she really is. Very few female protagonists in American literature have murdered their grandfathers in their youth, for example, and very few can so easily abandon the ruse of a normal suburban life, leaving behind husband and child in order to pursue a dangerous and potentially deadly mystery, adopting a whole new identity as a lone sleuth.
Jane, in fact, rejects many of the traditional values of American society, which certainly makes her an unusual protagonist. At the same time, she lives in a near future world in which American society is clearly falling apart, which makes it only natural to question the values that have brought the society to this point, even though there are hints in the novel that most people prefer to ignore the evidence of their own eyes and to continue to believe the platitudes of American greatness that have been taught to them. Of course, Jane’s work as a security analyst puts her in an especially good position to recognize that American society is already crumbling as the narrative begins. After all, a crumbling society makes people and companies feel insecure, which is good for the security business, which paradoxically depends on people feeling insecure, so they will need it to help make them feel less insecure. Thus, deteriorating conditions feed their business, even as most people attempt to deny the deterioration: “The truth we never uttered: that the Republic could become a husk and our borders a quagmire of death and discomfort … but this only strengthened our job security” (70).
In some ways, Jane’s job as security analyst places her in a very central position in American society, given the increasing emphasis on security problems in the failing America of the novel. She is vaguely aware that, in her job, she is feeding on the problems that plague American society and that, in her life as a suburban consumer, she is potentially making things worse. Focusing on the drones that have, in this world of the near future, become a ubiquitous instrument of surveillance (as well as a common means of product delivery), Jane notes that “I loved drones. I loved how I could order something and it would be there immediately. I would toss the plastic in the recycling bin and never questioned the magic of how I had received yet another gift. We could do drones well, but we could not stop pouring plastic waste into the ocean” (58).
Eventually, Jane abandons her role as conventional wife, mother, and consumer, and begins her quest to find Silvina, who has worked to battle against the prevailing culture in a number of ways (though ways that remain mysterious through most of the novel). And Jane’s status as a growing rebel who ultimately sympathizes with threatened animals is no doubt part of what makes her an attractive character. But Jane is also, in an odd way, an almost allegorical representative of American society itself, the unraveling of her conventional middle-class suburban life standing as an emblem of the unraveling of an American society of which middle-class suburbia had been such an emblem.
There are several key moments in the novel in which Jane drifts further and further outside the American middle-class norm. As she initially breaks into Silvina’s apartment, Jane experiences a considerable amount of middle-class guilt at this violation of the sanctity of private property. By the time she narrates the story, however, she has become accustomed to taking such actions and is becoming more and more comfortable with them: “I broke in. The method isn’t important. I’ve done it since. Several times. Each time it feels less like crossing a boundary or a border. Each time, there’s less resistance” (112). By this point, Jane’s “generic” (as she puts it) middle-class life is far behind her.
Of course, the world is already in crisis, even as the narrative begins, which makes it easier to give up old values. As Jane is still early in her quest to find Silvina, we learn that Europe has been crippled by a freak snowstorm, the Gulf Stream has almost been halted due to garbage choking the Atlantic Ocean, and “some kind of contamination” is headed toward America, soon to turn the skies gray-green (157). And all of these events, by this time, are so entirely routine that no one even reacts to them any more.
As Jane pursues her investigation, she is suddenly fired from her job—apparently due to pressure from the Vilcapampas—though she moves on from that job rather comfortably. Indeed, she herself makes it clear that her protest at her firing is largely a manner of obligatory performance. It is clear that she is ready to move on from that job, anyway, which is not surprising given her growing recognition of the contradiction between the fact that they supposedly providing security but depend on insecurity. What is perhaps more surprising is that Jane so easily abandons her roles as wife and mother. Granted, her marriage seems to be more of a loose alliance than the traditional loving partnership, but she has at least struggled to try to live up to conventional expectations of motherhood. By the end of the novel, though, she has accepted the fact that she is unlikely to see her daughter again—and does not seem overly troubled by that fact. After all, her daughter is safe with a distant relative in a gated community In Canada, which is about as much as one could hope for in this world. Having left one last message for her daughter, Jane, in fact, doesn’t even attempt to contact the girl or check for messages from her, preferring to let things lie, given that she is in no position to provide a conventional home or a safe life.
Hummingbird Salamander and the Collapse of America
And safety is at a premium in the world of this novel. After Jane’s initial quest to find Silvina fails, she essentially retreats into the mountains for five years, largely living off the land and only occasionally coming into contact with human society. When she does make such contact, she learns of a society that is in a rapid state of collapse. The National Guard has been called out to deal with “an unspecified disaster.” Gridlock and confusion are everywhere, as seemingly nothing functions properly any longer. Some of this collapse is clearly environmental, as when Jane notes that the sky has, in fact, taken on the predicted green-gray color but is now additionally tinted with gold, supposedly due to a natural gas explosion, though Jane suspects that this explanation might be spurious, suggesting her growing distrust of the authorities. Meanwhile, there is a general advisory to wear face masks and not to breathe unfiltered air, though it is not entirely clear why that is the case (334). Some of the things Jane observes, though, are more unequivocal: “The lines at gas stations. The closures of businesses. The empty shelves in grocery stores. Wandering aimless was a good way to get a reading. To analyze incoming evidence—and the evidence all pointed to a kind of reckoning” (328-329). Observing the ongoing collapse of American society, Jane realizes that Silvina had been right about the coming of that collapse, even if Americans in general had remained in a state of denial: “Fires, floods, disease, nuclear contamination, foreign wars, civil unrest, police brutality, drought, massive electrical outages, famine. Always somewhere else. Until the garbage piled up and the buses stopped running and security forces patrolled streets instead of cops. Some places, militias conducted roadblocks, and no one tried to stop them. Military tribunals popping up. A federal government in crisis. Cell towers destroyed by conspiracy theorists. At the very least, we had become a failed state. Was the world a failed state, too?” (329). Of course, Hummingbird Salamander was published in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that event hovers in the background of the novel. Indeed, all of the social problems noted above are being exacerbated by a whole series of pandemics, one of which, in fact, ultimately kills Jane’s estranged husband.
We have seen lots of science fiction narratives depicting a dark future in which society and civilization have collapsed for one reason or another. What is particularly chilling about this vision, however, is that all of the types of things observed by Jane here are already happening in the world of today. Hummingbird Salamander contains only the slightest extrapolation of today’s social problems into the very near future. As such, it is an extremely believable narrative that should serve as a warning that what we are seeing around us today is serious and should not be ignored. At the same time, Hummingbird Salamander differs from most narratives of future collapse in that most of these narratives involve a specific cataclysmic event (or event) that brings about the collapse. In Hummingbird Salamander, though, civilization is dying the death of a thousand cuts, and the world is ending not with a bang but a whimper.
It is crucial to Hummingbird Salamander that the novel presents a compelling argument that what is really underlying all of these multiple crises is the fundamental problem of climate change and the accompanying collapse of the natural environment. The novel’s vision of the extinction of hummingbirds and salamanders is easy to believe because it is easy to see that extinction well underway in our own world and because so many other species are already extinct. But the novel also suggests that human beings might be heading down the road to extinction as well, something that is a bit of a harder sell. Indeed, in what Silvina in her journal refers to as the “fatal adaptation,” human beings seem to have a remarkable ability simply to ignore the evidence of collapse that is all around them (37).
Hummingbird Salamander and Postmodern Apocalypse
Within Hummingbird Salamander, individual citizens are confused and unable to process what is going on, partly because so much misinformation and so many spurious conspiracy theories are afloat, making it almost impossible to see the truth clearly. Meanwhile, the inertial force of capitalism is such that most large multinational corporations remain in business, providing a false sense of security, even as they lay off employees, many by prioritizing their own short-term survival over actually trying to save the world. The same can be said for governments, which, rather than taking decisive action to solve social and environmental problems, simply become more autocratic, more concerned with preserving their own power than with confronting the world’s problems in an effective way (327).
At first glance, Hummingbird Salamander would appear to be a good illustration of Fredric Jameson’s declaration, writing in the early 1990s, that “it seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism” (1994,xii). Later, Jameson expands his point about postapocalyptic narratives by noting that, amid a general postmodern loss of the ability to think historically, contemporary culture has largely lost the ability to envision the end of capitalism and the rise of something better via any sort of normal historical process, As a result, our culture has become fascinated by visions of the destruction of civilization itself as the only way to bring about fundamental systemic change. As Jameson puts it (in a widely quoted, but somewhat enigmatic, declaration), “Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world” (2003, 76).
Jameson here suggests that postapocalyptic narratives provide a kind of utopian compensation for the seeming indestructibility of capitalism by producing a clean slate from which we might have the ability to start over with a new system. Hummingbird Salamander, however, does not provide a single cataclysmic event that neatly produces such a clean slate. Instead, it envisions a slow, gradual deterioration of the natural environment and of American civil society that is precisely part of the natural historical process. Granted, VanderMeer does not follow this process beyond the collapse in order to construct a new post-collapse world, even if he does point toward that possibility. I would argue, though, that the decision not to describe such a future is not a failure so much as an acknowledgement of the difficulty of knowing just what a genuinely different world might be like.
Silvina herself points toward this difficulty when she notes in her journal that “Democracy is not enough because it is never really Democracy. The -ism that will fix this has not been written down because it exists in what remains of the world beyond us and we cannot read that language. So we are left with flawed ways of thinking, mechanical ways, that work against the very organic nature of our brains. We have built so many toxic constructs, we cannot see through the latticework” (244). But genuinely new ways of thinking are extremely hard to come by. Probably the biggest reason why no one (other than isolated actors such as Silvina) seems to be doing anything to confront the problems of the day is that no one really knows what to do. It is clear that major changes need to be made in the way the human race lives in the world, but anyone (like Silvina) who proposes such changes is regarded as an extremist, especially as there is little agreement about what needs to be done.
Silvina’s suggestion that the solution lies in a world “beyond us” whose language we “cannot read” nicely captures the difficulty of imagining a genuinely different future, a problem that Jameson himself has acknowledged in a number of places. For Jameson, a dedicated Marxist, this genuinely different future is likely to be a good one only if it is socialist. However, like most Marxists, Jameson acknowledges that true socialism (or any actually existing utopian system) would be so different from our current conditions under capitalism that it would literally be unthinkable to us now, given that our imaginations are made up of “bits and pieces of the here and now” (Archaeologies xiii). This means, says Jameson, that “our imaginations are hostages to our own mode of production (and perhaps to whatever remnants of past ones it has preserved)” (xiii). Of course, certain modes of production also enable certain kinds of thought (utopian or otherwise), and one could argue that genuine utopianism is always historicist in the sense of requiring the ability to imagine fundamental systemic change over time.
At the end of Hummingbird Salamander, Jane herself seems to have decided that, given the current state of the world, it is worth the risk of a leap into an unknown future when she injects herself with Silvina’s formula, even though she has no idea what will happen. And this strangely open ending seems completely appropriate for this particular narrative. For one thing, it jettisons the demand for closure that has so often driven the detective story—and that is part of the same quest for mastery that has informed the human drive to dominate nature, with dire results). For another, it suggests that we must be willing to take risks in order to change our way of living in the world, given the dire need for change, even if we cannot anticipate exactly what the consequences of that change will be or what the world resulting from that change will be like. What we can anticipate, per this novel, is that things will only get worse unless some sort of radical action is taken to make them better.
Berlatsky, Noah. “Review: Climate Collapse Comes for the Spy Thriller in Jeff VanderMeer’s Sly Genre Game.” Los Angeles Times, 30 March 2021, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2021-03-30/review-climate-collapse-comes-for-the-spy-thriller-in-jeff-vandermeers-sly-genre-game. Accessed 15 June 2022.
Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. Verso, 2005.
Jameson, Fredric. “Future City.” New Left Review 21, May-June 2003, pp. 65–79.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press, 1991.
Jameson, Fredric. The Seeds of Time. Columbia University Press, 1994.
Phillips, Helen. “Jeff VanderMeer Wants to Show You How the World Ends.” New York Times, 6 April 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/06/books/review/jeff-vandermeer-hummingbird-salamander.html. Accessed 15 June 2022.
Stuelke, Patricia. “Feminist Conspiracies, Security Aunties, and Other Surveillance State Fictions.” Review of International American Studies, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring—Summer 2022, pp. 51–68.
VanderMeer, Jeff. Hummingbird Salamander. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021.
 Hummingbird Salamander is not, of course, unique in this sense. Compare, for example, David Brin’s The Postman (1985), which is notable for its vision of a collapse of American society in the face of not one, but several, sequential apocalyptic events. To an extent, The Postman is a classic Cold War narrative in that the collapse of civilization in the novel begins with the outbreak of a nuclear war, including electromagnetic pulses (triggered by the explosion of hydrogen bombs high in the atmosphere) that wipe out essentially all electronic devices. What is different about The Postman is that this nuclear war is not, in itself, sufficient to cause the collapse of American civilization, which turns out to be quite resilient. The actual war, however, was only the trigger that created the conditions for a whole series of apocalyptic events to occur: “Inconsistent, chaotic, it stopped far short of the spasm everyone predicted. Instead, it was more like a shotgun blast of one midscale catastrophe after another. By itself, any one of the disasters might have been survivable” (28). Brin, though, ultimately falls back on the old principles of liberal democracy (even in a 2020 update of his novel) as the key to building a better postapocalyptic world, something VanderMeer is far too canny to propose.
 Elsewhere, Jameson notes that the postmodern inability to envision a better future might lead to a sense of hopelessness. However, he also notes that, just because we can’t see better times coming doesn’t mean that they are impossible: “The postmodern may well … be little more than a transitional period between two stages of capitalism, in which the earlier forms of the economic are in the process of being restructured on a global scale, including the older forms of labor and its traditional organizational institutions and concepts. That a new international proletariat (taking forms we cannot yet imagine) will reemerge from this convulsive upheaval it needs no prophet to predict: we ourselves are still in the trough, however, and no one can say how long we still stay there” (417).